Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 1, 2010

Guest Opinion: 'Alternative high schools' used to be Palo Alto's solution to overstressed students

by Elizabeth Lee

I've heard parents talk about how their kids "survived" Palo Alto's high schools. My own school years in Palo Alto during the 1970s were marked by struggle in classes I didn't like, bullies and feeling like I didn't fit in. With visual impairments that made it hard for me to read the blackboard and undiagnosed Tourette syndrome it was no wonder I hated school.

Then in 11th grade at Cubberley High School, I joined Alternative School Cubberley, or ASC. Those two years were some of the best of my life.

We called teachers by their first names, and instead of sitting in rows at desks facing the teacher we sat in circles on rugs leaning against huge pillows. Instead of classes, we had "seminars," where teachers encouraged our critical-thinking skills with discussions that sometimes led to lively debates.

The school had somewhere between 100 and 150 students, and the non-conformist peer culture was more intimate and personal than the mainstream culture of the "regular school." I was sometimes greeted with hugs, and playful touching in our day-to-day interactions. Instead of being interested in cheerleading, school dances and wearing make-up, many of us were interested in things like vegetarianism, organic gardening, protecting the environment and ending South African apartheid. ASC was mentioned in The Environmental Handbook.

Seminars ranged from transpersonal psychology, nutrition and Native American studies to massage and human sexuality. Some of them, such as the last two, were held at night at teachers' or students houses.

Although we had the same graduation requirements as everyone else, we had the freedom to plan with our teachers how we would meet them. We could choose from the myriad of seminars offered or do home study. We could get all our credits through ASC or take some classes in the regular school. I took Mandarin Chinese and typing in the regular school and most of the rest through ASC.

Sure there were some stoners and slackers, but they didn't define the school atmosphere. Many of us went on to college, including schools such as Stanford and UCLA.

We had parties and took trips together, and we hung out during lunch and after school. On trips to the beach students and one teacher skinny-dipped in the ocean. (The skinny-dipping teacher was later accused of inappropriate behavior.)

ASC students and teachers sometimes got together with what was Paly's alternative school, known as Apple Pie High, which met in the top of the Tower Building.

ASC wasn't perfect. I went on to a state college still having problems with my writing skills. But that didn't happen because of ASC being what it was.

ASC was a refuge of diversity and social acceptance amidst a mundane and impersonal milieu, a haven for free-thinkers, and an oasis of sanity. ASC was the beginning of my opened-minded world view. It taught me that there was more than one right way to learn.

It was also, without my realizing it, my solution to being physically and socially challenged, and my de facto alternative to having an individualized education plan.

Then Cubberley closed, and ASC with it, the year after I graduated.

When my son Dale, who also has Tourette syndrome and learning challenges, started high school at Paly with an individualized education plan 26 years later, I thought Apple Pie High was still there. I thought it would provide the same refuge for Dale that ASC had for me. But it no longer existed, and the top of the Tower Building was deemed unsafe during earthquakes and closed.

"What? You mean you no longer have an alternative school for the students any more?" I remember asking one of the administrators.

"Just Transitions," the administrator said. She explained that it was a program only for students with serious attendance or emotional issues, and that Dale, who was also labeled "gifted," was too high functioning to qualify.

I didn't see how, with his hands-on, kinesthetic learning style, he could thrive in Play's "regular school" environment, but he was determined to give it a try. Although he made a lot of friends and was well liked by his teachers, it was an academic nightmare. With the frequent phone calls, letters and e-mails from his teachers informing me that he wasn't keeping up, the fruitless school meetings, and the regular arguments over homework, the constant stress took its toll on our family.

With the help of a tutor and an understanding resource-room teacher, Dale tested out of Paly at the end of 10th grade, just after he turned 16. He says it's one of the best decisions he ever made.

The next year a friend's daughter with similar issues also graduated two years early. Dale is now 20 and finishing his AA degree at Foothill. He also works as a "techie," and has his own business.

But if only there had been an alternative school at Paly like the one I'd attended, offering students other choices with the same flexibility that I'd had. Perhaps then Dale, and so many others like him, would have had other options besides early graduation for alleviating their school stress.

Perhaps then more students would have, figuratively and literally, survived high school.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by LISA OHEARN-KECK, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 3, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Thanks so much for your story of the wonderful school you attended at Cubberely , There actually is a school very much like the one you attended, however it is a private not public school. It most likely would have been a great fit for your son. Christopher Keck founded Palo Alto Prep School on the Cubberely campus in 1986 and we have been serving students from Burlingame to San Jose ever since. Palo Alto Prep is a small college prep high school which allows students to be individuals while receiving the attention and mentoring that larger private school and local public schools just are not able to offer. With an emphasis on outdoor experiential learning we empower students while providing accountability. With 60 students in the school,a fun energetic staff, and students who thrive in a caring small environment, its an awesome place to be!

Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 3, 2010 at 8:35 pm

We face foreign competition from countries that do not follow the hippy 60s dead- end philosophy in education.
PA schools need both excellence and resilience. That should be our focus.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2010 at 8:32 am

Sharon writes:

"We face foreign competition from countries that do not follow the hippy 60s dead- end philosophy in education.

"PA schools need both excellence and resilience. That should be our focus."

Sharon-- what about students with learning disabilities who *can't* "compete" in the standard sit-still-and-memorize school environment? Just toss them on the garbage heap? They are exactly as entitled to an appropriate education as someone taking 7 AP classes-- neither more nor less.

Posted by JohnD, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2010 at 9:12 am


When I was in high school back in the Chicago area, there was a statement painted on the wall of the weight room. At the time, I laughed at it because I was a lazy 16 year old with some idea that I was simply entitled to succeed in life. As I've gotten older, I began to realize the wisdom of this simple creed:

"If you think you can or you think you can''re right."

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 4, 2010 at 9:46 am

JohnD - There are kids who truly "can't" do some of the things required by our high schools - kids who are very bright but have a learning difference. These are real, physical differences. Regarding your belittling comment - if a student is deaf, will "thinking they can" hear help? If they are dyslexic, will "thinking they can" read more easily help?

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I have to say it's pretty funny to read all of this and see people bashing alternative programs when American society and schools seem to be at an all time low from following the same old tired assembly line culling out system.

The model that we manufacture children to fit into is starting to look like profiles of acting, music, sports, very few succeed and those that do get all the spoils. We first throw away and then wreck most of our kids in terms of being really happy, productive citizens and human beings. I wonder if it is not the ones who make it through on top that have the disabilities, or that cause the disabilities for the rest of them?

Posted by Happy with alternative, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 4, 2010 at 2:58 pm

My daughter just enrolled in the Liberty Virtual Online School, offered through San Jose Unified School District. She will do her senior year there and graduate from SJUSD. It's only been a couple weeks, but it seems to be working well.

She spends about 5-6 hours a day online doing her work, and is actually progressing through most of the courses at an accelerated rate.

Lest anyone think that SJUSD isn't as rigorous as PAUSD, it requires 240 credits for graduation (as opposed to PAUSD's 210) and, unlike PAUSD, the courses required line up with what is necessary to get into a UC or most any other four year college.

This program is open to anyone in Santa Clara County. The people in San Jose were great to work with on the inter-district transfer, and didn't even ask what the reason was.

In my daughter's case, she suffers from depression, anxiety and severe insomnia. Getting up and going to school in the morning was a huge challenge for her, and some teachers do not tolerate frequent absences, which added to her stress. Now, she can get up at 10, sit in bed in her pajamas and get a couple hours of work done, have breakfast, go to the gym or walk the dog, spend another few hours on the computer later on – sometimes much later on, like midnight.

It's great. I'm sure the person who calls him/herself Sharon will be apoplectic over this non-traditional approach, but it works for us and for our daughter and we are all so much happier.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 4, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Dear Happy - I love hearing stories like this! I'm so glad you found the right solution for your daughter and I would venture to guess that the depression, anxiety and insomnia will get better because of a happier school situation. Good luck and congrats to you for supporting her in this.

Posted by Barron Park Parent, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 4, 2010 at 5:24 pm

If a student finds themselves unhappy and stressed out at the bottom rung of Gunn's Ivy League pyramid scheme they should get up and leave. Thank goodness there are places for struggling students to go to where teachers are THERE for THEM.

Some people don't want the kids at the bottom to be able to escape. Could this be because top students get to the top of the class by stepping on the backs of those at the bottom?

If a student is unhappy at the bottom, then they need to get up and leave. Nothing sends a stronger message then a simple "goodbye."

If you are struggling don't give up, just get up and find a place where what you have offer is valued.

"hippy 60s dead- end"

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Oct 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Kids have different learning styles. Some have real learning disabilities. Kids mature at different rates.

In a society where everyone is needed to the best of their ability and everyone should be valued, providing alternative learning settings in the public school system is a great idea.

Thanks for these heartwarming stories of success helped by the availability of alternative learning settings.

Posted by Alt. Ed. parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm

There are alternatives available, but few are financially feasible for many families. It would be nice if PAUSD would adopt their own alternative program.

The latest PAUSD Assessment report compares our district to similarly situated districts. Notice that our top students are all performing the same but PAUSD has significantly lower scores for our African-American, Hispanic, English Learners, Socially Economically Disadvantaged and Students with Disabilities.

We are NOT taking care of our struggling students. We need to focus on where we are weak not where we are already strong.

See Page 14 Web Link

Posted by fyi, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm

to barron park parent,

stop bashing the teachers at gunn. i had 2 children graduate from there and their teachers were ALWAYS there for them. kids need to learn how to ask for help. a teacher can't help if a student doesn't ask for it.

parents need to take some responsibility for this. parents need to teach their children how to ask for the help they need. i don't know of a single teacher who would not help a student if they respectfully asked for help.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 5, 2010 at 12:45 pm


My daughter currently has a middle school math teacher who will only give help in the 10 minutes allocated to TEAM (the end of the day on MT and Th) and that time is for all her students, probably about 120 or so. My son had a spanish teacher at Paly who refused to help the kids - even during class hours.

Many of our teachers are very caring and willing to help the students. But some really don't care. (A good reason to get rid of tenure, but thats another topic...)

Posted by Barron Park Parent, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 5, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I am not bashing Gunn. It is a great place, but even the best place isn't best for everyone. No matter how much some teachers care and try, it is still a fairly large school. Some people would do better elsewhere so they should go. It is all about what is best for the student.

Posted by Happy with alternative, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm

fyi, it's really great that your children had such good experiences with the teachers at Gunn. We have too, by and large. But there are some bad apples, and you were lucky to avoid them.

My daughter had a teacher who was, to put it mildly, awful. Not just awful as in incompetent, but awful as in getting enjoyment out of humiliating and belittling a young girl, and using her grade book as a way of punishing her. This treatment resulted in her transferring away from Gunn at the end of the year, because she didn't feel safe there.

Posted by AB, a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:24 pm

The school system is not set up to help kids learn, it is set up to produce future employees.

I too went to public alternative schools in the 70's for both Jr High & High School. At the end of the time I was in it I discovered that I might have been happiest in a serious advanced college prep track more than the disposable hippy one, but they it did make those years more tolerable than they would have been in normal school.

I managed to graduate 2 years early. If I hadn't, and if testing out had not just started, I absolutely would have dropped out. Even alternative school, while better than regular school, was awful. I actually started trying to get them to let me test out when I was 14. I would have easily passed the tests, but they wouldn't let me take them.

For many kids testing out is the best thing available. Like me, they can proceed to college and the rest of life. Sure it's hard being younger than everyone else in college, but not as bad as being in high school at any age. And if more people would just test out -- there'll be more people your age in college too.

Posted by Forallkids, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm

PAUSD should serve ALL of their students, the ones with disabilities and the academically gifted. However, as is seen in the accelerated pace of our high school curriculum, the academically gifted seem to be who the curriculum is designed for. Students with disabilities have to fight for every accommodation possible and if they request a more moderately paced program, they may be offered "modified" programs, which work against them when they apply for college. It is not the fault of these kids that they learn differently, and there is no curriculum designed to teach the way they learn. While it may be easy for many children to advocate for themselves, those with disabilities tend to have lower self esteem and prefer to stay under the radar rather than advocating and drawing attention to themselves. Both high schools in the district are over crowded. There should be an alternative HS that can give the student who does not learn at an accelerated pace a good education, taught at an appropriate pace, with the opportunity to learn material, not just push to do hours of homework in order not to fail. Many of our kids are struggling, even if they get through the school day and seem fine on the surface. They deserve a curriculum designed to meet their needs as the academically gifted children deserve a curriculum designed to meet their needs. Yes, there are alternatives such as Palo Alto Prep or Mid-Peninsula HS- both great if you can afford four years of tuition at those rates.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Eliminate the compulsory attendance laws at grade 6. Let kids mow lawns and deliver papers and, ah, yes, pearl dive, to demonstrate they don't need no skool to get by. Allow a modest tuition for courses other than basic education from 7 on. Discipline should be on the level one can expect in the workplace, where physical assault becomes a police matter.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Eliminate the compulsory attendance laws at grade 6. Let kids mow lawns and deliver papers and, ah, yes, pearl dive, to demonstrate they don't need no skool to get by. Allow a modest tuition for courses other than basic education from 7 on. Discipline should be on the level one can expect in the workplace, where physical assault becomes a police matter.

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